Book - Random Harvest

James Hilton - 1954
Pan Books
ISBN: none
Random Harvest
£4.63 + p&p.

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The novel is divided, not into chapters, but four large parts. It is set in the period immediately preceding the outbreak of the Second World War. It is told in the first person of Harrison, and by means of two extended external analepses tells the story of Charles Rainier, a wealthy businessman and politician, from the time he was invalided out of the army during World War I, his subsequent memory loss and partial recovery, his assuming control of the family business to his attempts to recover his memory just as Hitler invades Poland. The book is prefaced with this quote: '..German Official Report: "According to a British Official report, bombs fell at Random"'. The novel starts in 1937, and is narrated by Charles Rainier's secretary, Mr. Harrison. Charles and Mrs. Rainier ("Helen" in the novel) reside at Stourton, their country manor west of London, where she is the perfect hostess, and a young man named Woburn has been hired to catalogue the family library. One night Rainier recounts his story to Harrison, from the time he woke up in Liverpool in 1919, having lost two years of his life. Rainier's tale is told in the form of the third person (although Harrison is recounting it) and relates his return to Stourton, where he learns his father is gravely ill. Told by the doctor that the shock of his return could be fatal to his father, Charles decides to leave his home to lessen the risk to his father, despite the fact that the family lawyer insists on telling the senior Mr. Rainier so he can change his will back and include Charles, who had been assumed dead. Shortly afterwards, Charles receives word that his father has died and returns home. The family gathers to pay their last respects, and included is 14-year-old Kitty, stepdaughter of Charles' elder sister Jill. Prompted by the family lawyer, each of the Rainier heirs agrees to give up a portion of their inheritance to Charles, so he may have an equal share. Under the poor leadership of Charles' older brother Chetwynd (Chet), Rainier shares dwindle in worth until Charles has to take control of the company to save it from bankruptcy. He takes leave from university (where he had resumed his studies which had been interrupted by war) and throws himself into work. He saves the family business, but at the price of his own scholarly aspirations. In due course, he and Kitty become engaged. But before their wedding, he receives a note from Kitty breaking off the engagement, and telling him she is going abroad. Rainier goes on to disclose to Harrison that Kitty was to die soon after. Meantime, war is on the horizon, and Harrison and Rainier spend time together going to music halls and working. On a lark, they go see an old-fashioned vaudeville show, and something about it sparks a vague memory in Rainier. He starts to remember things, including being in a hospital in Melbury, a north London outer suburb. He and Harrison drive there, where he finds the asylum he was in during the final days of World War I. The encounter causes Rainier's memory to flood back. He remembers his life in the hospital, where he had been deposited after being released from a German prison hospital as an unknown soldier. Escaping from the asylum as the end of the Great War is being celebrated, he goes into Melbury, where he is rescued by a young woman just as he is on the point of being reported. Feeling poorly, he is helped by the young woman – Paula Ridgeway – to a nearby hotel, The Owl, where she is staying. Now assigned the pseudonym of 'Smith', he takes on odd jobs at the hotel, guarded by 'Biffer', the ex-boxer and landlord. It is not long before his whereabouts become known to the hospital. Although Paula sends him away before he is caught, they soon meet up again at a revue in which she is appearing. She arranges a job with the travelling troupe of actors, and they grow closer. After an abortive stage appearance of his own and a brief resumption of his mental illness in which he assaults a man in the street, 'Smith' escapes to a small village named Beachings Over. Paula easily tracks him down, however, and aware that the authorities may still be pursuing him after the assault, they move to London, where they are befriended by Blampied, a kindly parson. 'Smith' and Paula marry and Smith starts to help the parson in his work. Smith discovers a flair for writing, and Blampied, knowing the editor of a newspaper in Liverpool, sends some of Smith's writings to him. Impressed, the editor asks 'Smith' to come and see him. 'Smith' arrives in Liverpool, but slips whilst crossing the street in the rain and is knocked unconscious. These recollections prompt Rainier to become more determined than ever to find out what happened after his blackout in Liverpool, above all to locate Paula. He goes off to search and Harrison returns to the Rainier home, where he encounters Mrs. Rainier. He outlines what has taken place. She takes Harrison for a drive, then "threaded the winding gravel roads over the estate to an exit I had not known of before..." They wind up in Beachings Over and spot Rainier's car. Mrs. Rainier and Harrison find Charles up on a hillside. The closing line reveals that Mrs. Rainier is in fact Paula.